A new development has come to light in the foot and mouth (FMD) crisis currently sweeping through the British farming industry. Pigs at a farm in Northumberland were revealed last night to have a “highly suspicious case” of the virus, thought by many now to be the source of the original outbreak which was uncovered in Essex on Monday.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) has traced the virus back to the farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall after it was known that it had delivered the infected pigs found at the Essex slaughterhouse, Cheale Meats. The farm has now become subject to restrictions on animal movements.

Another case of FMD was been found less than ten miles away from the Essex slaughterhouse in cattle at Great Warley, near Brentwood, and authorities believe the highly infectious virus was spread by the wind. The five-mile exclusion zone established around Cheale Meats was then extended as a precaution to ten miles.

The MAFF investigation has involved inquiries at farms as far away as Northern Ireland and Scotland. An unconfirmed case has also been reported at an unidentified pig farm in Aberdeenshire. Restrictions are also in place on two farms in Gloucestershire and Yorkshire and one on the Isle of Wight.

Across the countryside, activities are closing down in a bid to prevent a recurrence of the devastating outbreak of 1967. Appeals have been made for ramblers and horse riders to stay at home and hunts have been cancelled. Farmers’ markets have been shut down and strict hygiene measures are being applied at all farms. MAFF and The British Veterinary Association have put the 14,000 vets in Britain on “red alert.”

The disease, so called because of the blistered mouths and lameness that characterises infection, has also triggered international repercussions. Yves Cheneau, head of the UN Animal Health, Food and Agriculture Organisation, has warned listeners of the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that FMD is a global crisis: “We have different types of virus and one of them particularly – type O [the type discovered in Essex] is spreading and we can really call that a pandemic.”

Furthermore, type O can be spread by “not only the movement of animals but also the movement of foods, by tourists, by immigrants and so on, and can constitute a real danger.”

Britain’s beleaguered farmers have been left counting the cost as a ban on all animal exports, meat and milk, was imposed on Wednesday night. Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted that FMD is “the very last thing that farmers need” after BSE and last year’s outbreak of Swine Fever racked the industry. “This is a very tough time for them,” he added, promising: “We will look into the consequences for individual farmers, of how we help them, at a later time.”

Colin Breed, agricultural spokesman for the Liberal Democrat party, has said that increasing the number of abattoirs in the country can reduce risk of another outbreak in the future.

Prices of meat on the domestic market have already plummeted by 25% and the export ban, which is costing over £1m a day, will remain in place until the disease is controlled, explained the European Commission. The discovery of the infection at Northumberland is raising hopes however, as if the source of the outbreak is confirmed than the ban can be limited to that area.

Spokesman for the National Farmers Union, Kevin Pearce, revealed: “We would expect that within about seven days we would be in a good position to know whether or not this is likely to spread and whether we are going to see any further cases.”

For more information, consult the following websites:
Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
Meat and livestock commission
National Farmers Union
National Pig Association
World organisation for animal health: foot-and-mouth disease